Water damage can wreak havoc on your home, causing long-term mold, a rotting landscape, drainage issues, and an overall weakening of your property. Because of this, water issues need prompt attention. Unfortunately, water damage is not always the homeowner’s fault but instead may be due to the actions of a neighbor. In such circumstances, you must determine who is responsible for covering the costs associated with the damage.

Inspired by Neighbor Law: Fences, Trees, Boundaries, and Noise, written by attorneys Emily Doskow and Lina Guillen, we have developed an outline of what homeowners need to know when dealing with water damage. 

When the Neighbor Is Responsible for the Damage

Doskow and Guillen describe three distinct scenarios when your neighbor is at fault for water damage to your home: carelessness, intent, and a broken water law.

  1. Your neighbor was unreasonable or careless.

Lawn sprinklers, broken water spouts, children playing, and clogged pipes are all examples of genuine accidents. Let’s say your neighbor is away from home for a long period of time, and their sprinkler system is flooding your property. This unfortunate circumstance stemmed from your neighbor’s property and is now affecting your home. Nothing can be done until your neighbor arrives back home or their system automatically shuts off. In this case, your neighbor is responsible for any resulting damage to your property.

Other scenarios include unattended children with running hoses or neighboring properties with clogged pipes or cluttered gutters. Water can creep into any opening on your property, and your neighbor’s negligence in the upkeep of their property can cost you. If you suspect water damage is coming from your neighbor’s careless behavior, it is best to confront the issue immediately. If your neighbor refuses to take action, then you may need to protect your property by taking legal action.

  1. Your neighbor acted intentionally.

Think of water as a person. If a person steps unwelcomely onto your property, they are considered a trespasser. The same rule applies to water – deliberate, unwelcomed water is trespassing on your neighbor’s behalf.

Often, these intentional incidents stem from careless behavior. For example, if your neighbor has a rogue sprinkler that pours water onto your property and it seeps into your basement – and your neighbor knowingly does not fix the sprinkler – they are at fault for intentional damage. Or if a neighbor’s new landscaping project changes the natural water drainage scheme between your two houses, they are at fault if they do nothing to protect your house. Pay attention to water schemes and drainage patterns to ensure water does not intentionally flow onto your property from your neighbor’s.

  1. Your neighbor broke a law.

You should also pay attention to water laws and underground wells on your property. Doskow and Guillen cite incidents caused by unlawful digging around underground wells. If you have a well and your neighbor unlawfully digs near your property, damaging your well, your neighbor is breaking the law and is liable for tampering with your water supply.

Something else to keep an eye on is the unlawful disposal of harmful materials, which has historically caused great damage to neighboring houses and communities. If your neighbor has intentionally used fertilizers or pesticides, or has disposed of harmful chemicals, gasoline, or other toxins, this material can seep into your underground well and negatively affect your water supply. Most often, large corporations are at fault for the illegal disposal of toxic substances, but these incidents can happen anywhere, even in a residential neighborhood.

The main issue with illegal disposal is water contamination, which can negatively affect your property. Know your property’s water system, as well as your neighbor’s, to differentiate where the source of contamination lies. Specific state and local laws in your area may protect your water supply from your neighbor’s unlawful activity. Upon purchasing your home, you should quickly familiarize yourself with water laws that protect your property and your right to a clean water supply.

When the Neighbor Is Not Responsible for the Damage

At times, factors outside your neighbor’s control can cause damage to your property. Natural disasters, natural water runoff not caused by your neighbor, and degrees of reasonable activity may all work in your neighbor’s favor, despite damage to your property.

Natural disasters, often called “acts of God,” are unavoidable nuisances that may stem from your neighbor’s property. For example, if your neighbor installed a drainage ditch to help water flow in your community, but a torrential downpour dumps five inches of rain in the area, the ditch may overflow and flood your property. Your neighbor cannot be held responsible for the damage to your estate due to an unfortunate “act of God,” in this case a weather event, even though the water was overflowing from the neighbor’s drainage ditch.

Likewise, the natural water runoff that occurs in neighborhoods will not put your neighbor at fault if they did not establish the grading themselves. Sloping landscapes that are not human-made cannot hold neighbors liable for unfortunate water damage to your property.

Court judges have wrestled with reasonableness in such cases for years. If the project has a degree of reasonableness and no harm was intended, your neighbor will not be at fault for your property’s damage. Doskow and Guillen cite the example of a natural drainage ditch running along two houses. One neighbor installs a patio that slightly changes the grading, causing water damage to the next-door property after a rainstorm. In this instance, the neighbor who installed the patio cannot be held liable for damage because installing a patio was a reasonable project on his property. These cases are unfortunate but occur quite often.

Action Steps

If your property has been damaged and your neighbor is, in fact, at fault, insurance companies or your neighbor should directly compensate you. Occasionally, if the bill is hefty and substantial damage has occurred, you may need to involve the court to fairly settle any disputes.

In addition to property damage, your neighbor is responsible for compensating you for hotel stays or possible injuries that occurred due to the water damage. In the case of water contamination, your neighbor is liable for medical bills and even loss of property value. If malice occurred between you and your neighbor, you may be able to ask the court for punitive damages as well.

In any instance, you need to identify water problems immediately after they occur. When you notice a water issue:

  1. Do your best to clean up the damage.
  2. Inform your neighbor.
  3. Locate the source of the problem.
  4. File an insurance claim.
  5. Sue your neighbor if you cannot agree upon the issue.

Settling water damages, whether you do it personally, through your insurance provider, or through the court system, is time-sensitive. You must be quick to fix the issues before further damage is done to your property.

Water Rights

Deciding who has the right to water sources plays a big role in court cases. In cases where damage is caused by a shared water source, judges’ factor in reasonable behavior. Doskow and Guillen provide an example of a property that was drawing water from a shared water source that became troublesome when a rock quarry was built nearby. Eventually, the company that owned the quarry was found at fault because, over time, the residential property lost its source for water and the family had to move. Cases over shared water sources are examined on a case-by-case basis.

In Western states, where water sources are scarce, a prior appropriation method is used to settle disputes. This “first come, first serve” method requires residents to obtain a government-issued water permit. Under such a permit, the property owner can use the water source however they see fit and is not liable to their neighbors. If an issue arises under shared water permits, you should contact a local official or lawyer.

In instances of natural downstream flooding, courts decide who is at fault through reasonable actions. The common “natural watercourse” rule is widely used to protect upstream residents from liability to property damage that may occur downstream. Courts have ruled on both sides as to who is at fault for the damage, depending on the individual scenario.

Doskow and Guillen explain the types of possible damage and who may be at fault when water damage occurs to a property. In every situation, it is your duty as the homeowner to take prompt action to resolve the issue. The best scenario is to work with your neighbors to resolve any water-related problems. If your neighbors are not willing to cooperate, it is best to seek expert help.

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